Monday, May 8, 2006

Could a baseball team succeed in Leominster?

Once every summer, the local papers check in on the possibility of building a minor-league baseball stadium at the site of the old landfill at the intersection of rtes. 2 and 190. Today, the Sentinel and Enterprise ran this year's obligatory study of the project. The article looks at the status of the plan, and compares the effort to bring a team to Leominster to efforts to put teams in other New England cities. Some excerpts:

City making pitch for baseball
by Aaron Wasserman

LEOMINSTER -- Though the project left the spotlight last summer, city officials are quietly working on potentially elaborate plans for the capped landfill on Mechanic Street.

The city's assistant planning director, Andrew Taylor, said this week that a professional baseball stadium remains the potential centerpiece for the site, located near the intersection of Route 2 and I-190.

"We, as a city, feel it's a tremendous project to bring a minor-league baseball team into the city," said Taylor, a former executive in the San Francisco Giants organization and former general manager of the Arizona Fall League.

Officials are also contemplating what can join the stadium on 30 acres positioned behind Fidelity Bank's new headquarters, which is scheduled to open later this year.

"Baseball is so seasonal here in New England that you want to have activity on the site all year long," said Taylor, who mentioned he is interested in attracting a hotel or restaurants. "We're trying to figure out, in addition to the stadium, is there the opportunity to do some more thing there?"

Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella, a strong proponent of the project, said he would also like to see a restaurant or an indoor recreation facility join the stadium.

"I'd love to see a baseball complex there," he said. "It's an ideal location."

So far so good. I think that would be a great location for a stadium. Easy access to the stadium from the highway, hopefully with minimal impact on the neighborhood. For those who want to eat or shop in town, it also provides easy access to Searstown, or to the downtown via Mechanic Street.

But I have some concerns. With so many teams close by (Worcester, Lowell, Nashua, Manchester, and Boston all within an hour or so) will a team in Leominster be able to draw enough fans to be profitable? The article points to Manchester as a success story:

More encouraging is the new minor-league baseball team in Manchester, N.H.: the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, which debuted in 2004.

The franchise and its new stadium, which opened last season, have spurred more private investment in the city's riverfront district and improved the city's image, Manchester officials say.

"It enhances the image that we are a growing city that is just at the beginning of its reshaping," said the city's mayor, Frank C. Giunta. "Having a minor-league team provides the additional entertainment we couldn't get other than going, really, to Boston."


"Manchester is a city on the move -- a great deal of economic development, a lot of progress on housing and new business development," he said. "It's a city on the precipice of being an unbelievable city."

Leominster officials believe landing a professional franchise could improve the city's regional profile.

"I'm enthusiastically endorsing the concept of a ballfield down there," City Council President Robert A. Salvatelli said. "It would be a major, major coup if we could pull this off."

John J. Souza, the Planning Board's chairman, said of the idea, "It's one more thing for Leominster to put its name on the map."

Officials believe the ingredients are there to re-create Manchester's success: solid residential and commercial markets, and a highly visible piece of land with good highway access.

Despite the similarities, I don't think that Manchester is a very good comparison for one important reason: The Fisher Cats are affiliated with a major league team. Leominster would not be, unless the Fisher Cats, the Lowell Spinners, and the Red Sox all waive their territorial rights, which preclude another affiliated team from playing within 35 miles of their respective parks.

With an affiliated team like the Fisher Cats or the Spinners, fans have the opportunity to watch players that will someday play in the major leagues in addition to the excitement of rooting for the local team. When I was in Toronto last summer for the Red Sox-Blue Jays series, there were a number of fans there with Red Sox shirts and Fisher Cats hats. Similarly, it's not unusual for fans of the major league team to travel to a minor league city to see their teams play. As a team in an independent league like the Can-Am League, a Leominster team would not have the same advantages.

A Leominster team would also likely split some of the potential fan base with the Worcester Tornadoes, a Can-Am League team. In fact, a check of the Tornadoes web site reveals that the Tornadoes are already working on building a following here in Leominster, with two visits to Leominster schools scheduled this month.

The city needs to be 100% sure that a team will be successful before it helps to build a ballpark. Unlike an indoor arena like the Tsongas Arena in Lowell or the Verizon Center in Manchester which can be used to host hockey, basketball, tennis, boxing, curling, and other concerts and civic events year 'round, a ballpark is what it is. Other than the occasional concert while the home team is on the road, or perhaps hosting a baseball event like an MIAA state championship,when a ballpark is empty, there isn't much use for it. The worst thing that could happen would be to build a ballpark and then have it sit empty ten years down the road because an independent team or league has folded.

If the city can ensure that a team will call Leominster home for years to come, I'll be the first one in line to buy tickets. But if they aren't sure that a tenant will be a partner for the long haul, they should not build the stadium.

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